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Polito Vega: New York DJ Celebrates 45 Big Ones At La Mega Still Top Salsa Spinner, No 'Skquestion About It
Polito Vega: New York DJ Celebrates 45 Big Ones At La Mega.(Spotlight)
August 7, 2004
Polito Vega loves to talk. Talk fast and talk loud.
Even when he's sitting in an empty conference room at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of WSKQ (La Mega 97.9/New York. Vega's unmistakable voice sounds just like it does when he's in front of a mic during his weekend radio programs.
It's a constant, booming chatter often punctuated by a deep, hearty laugh. All that's missing are the commercial announcements.
Vega has reason to be happy these days. At 66, he's enjoying his 45th year as a New York radio icon and his 15th with La Mega.
While his career began before the advent of what would come to be known as salsa, Vega has long been considered a champion of the music.
By all accounts, he was the first Spanish-language DJ to spin records from the fledgling Fania label in the early 1960s. To this day. his "Salsa Con Polito" programs. particularly the Sunday edition from noon to 8 p.m., continue to be a nostalgic bridge to the musics glorious past.
On Aug. 7, the Fania All-Stars will perform in what is billed as an anniversary celebration of Vega at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.
"He's a true salsa guy who has really helped me and all the other Fania guys over the years." says bandleader Larry Harlow, one of the original Fania All-Stars.
"If it weren't for him, our music wouldn't even be on the air now. He's really the one who's kept the old music alive all these years. He's always been there for us."
Speaking mostly in Spanish, Vega recently sat with Billboard to talk about his long career and his place in salsa history:
You are celebrating your 45th anniversary in radio this year. How did it all begin?
I started in 1959 officially, but I had my first radio show in 1960. All the radio I've clone has been in New York. I'm Puerto Rican, I was born there, but I never spoke on the radio in Puerto Rico.
What was the show?
The program was calked "Fiesta Time." It was only half an hour long, on radio station WEVD-AM. From there I went to WWRL, spent a short time there, and then came a big break for me, a good opportunity, when I went to WBNX.
I was doing a radio show from 12 a.m. to 6 in the morning, the midnight shift. I spent two years there and they put me on the daytime shift, and I spent many years working alongside [Spanish Broadcasting System founder] Raul Alarcon [Sr.], who is now the owner of this place. At that time he was the senior program director [at WBNX]. We became good friends, and I learned a lot from him.
Weren't you also on TV for a while?
In 1967, [Telemundo] gave me a contract to do a show on TV, like "American Bandstand," called "Club de la Juventud." I was there for three years, and then I went back to radio. I've been constantly on the radio all that time, and I've received lots of awards, so many that I forget.
I was the first DJ to be a godfather of the Puerto Rican Day parade, the mayor [Edward Koch] named a day after me and gave me a ceremony at Gracie Mansion, and people [in the Latin industry] gave me a huge event at Roseland and coronated me "king of the radio."
I always had good ratings, and that's the name of the game. Without ratings, you're nothing on the radio. And after all these years, I'm very lucky that I still have good ratings.
You were born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. What was your upbringing like?
We were kind of poor. Actually, we were middle-class, more or less. What I really wanted to do was be a singer. That was my dream. In my town, I had a trio and sang on the radio, but never in my life did I think I would be an announcer on the radio. I never expected that to happen.
How did it happen?
It was by pure chance. A friend who worked on "Fiesta Time" was from my town, and I came to New York from Puerto Rico and went to say hello to him at the station. He greeted me on the radio and then asked me to come on-air and answer calls from listeners. The producer heard me, asked who I was and told me I sounded good.
I went back the next day. I was working for them for free, because they didn't pay me [anything]. But I knew that working as a musician was going to be very hard to do, so my enthusiasm for being on the radio was so big I started practicing and practicing.
In those days I bought the newspaper every day and read it aloud to myself, and I listened to other DJs on the radio. When one begins a career, you don't have your own style. You have to emulate someone.
On one occasion I was listening to WABC, and they had a disc jockey named Bob Lewis--"Babalu." I borrowed a lot from his style. He would talk very fast, so I'd talk very fast. And I took some of his catchphrases and said them in Spanish. They were stupid things to do, but people listening to me didn't realize it.
You have no choice when you're just starting out. You're young, and you don't know better. One has to learn from a teacher, and he was my teacher without him even knowing it.
Did you ever meet him?
Oh, yeah, I was crazy to meet the guy. And one day I did, and he invited me to watch him work. And so I watched how he worked, listened to his style and I said, "Damn, someday I'd like to be like him." And finally, thank God, I am.
He gave me a lot of support. He told me to keep on going, that I was young and I would [be successful]. Because at that time, there were only two Latin stations, WHOM and WBNX. That's it. And the music they played wasn't salsa, either.
What type of music was it?
It was guitar music, by people like Felipe Rodriguez. Tito Puente was around, Tito Rodriguez was around, and Machito, but the Latin stations didn't play their music. They played trios, boleros. The only ones who played that music were [DJs] Dick "Ricardo" Sugar and Symphony Sid, who played it at night on the American stations. They bought the radio time. Salsa came later.
Were you around when salsa first became popular?
The first record ever played [on the radio] by a Fania artist, I played it. It was called "El Campeon," by Johnny Pacheco.
[Fania Records owner] Jerry Masucci brought me the 45 one night. He brought coffee and doughnuts to the studio, and he told me, "Finally, I got my first single." We were very good friends. From there he recorded Larry Harlow and the others, and it went on from there.
Is that when salsa really started to grow?
Just a little. The music still wasn't played on the radio. After that, Masucci still didn't have one hit, and the guy was frustrated. He didn't know what to do.
He recorded big orchestras with tropical Cuban rhythms--Larry Harlow, Johnny Pacheco, Bobby Valentin, Ray Barretto---but none of them stuck until Willie Colon came around with his first hit, which was "Che Che Cole," with Hector Lavoe. After "Che Che Cole," that's when [salsa] started to stick.
How did you eventually get to WSKQ?
I stayed for a lot of years at WBNX, until 1989. That's when this station began. But at that time it was called FM 98. Raul Alarcon Jr. wanted to bring me here and we were talking, but WBNX didn't want to let me go. They offered me a new contract, but I wanted to try FM radio, so I've been here ever since.
Many Latin music fans and musicians say that if it weren't for you, classic salsa would never be heard on the radio anymore. Do you agree?
Well, I have a special show. I have my thing. But sometimes I play new music too. I combine them, because I don't want to seem too old if I just stay with oldies after oldies after oldies.
I am an old young man. My age is 66, but in my mind I'm 25, 26, and that's what has helped me stay on the radio. Because all the DJs who were around when I started either retired or they died. I'm still here because if you think "old," you're screwed.
How long are you planning to keep this up?
I would like to have at least five more years and then get out. I've been here so many years, so to do another five, it's like, what the hell?
Still Top Salsa Spinner, No 'Skquestion About It
DAVID HINCKLEY DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
August 4, 2004
New York Daily News
When Polito Vega got his first New York radio gig spinning what would soon be called salsa music on the old multicultural WEVD, the records were 45 rpm.
Now he's been on the air 45 years, and while vinyl long ago gave way to tapes and computers, Vega's own stature has grown along with the musical culture he's still sending out over the New York airwaves.
He's been on WSKQ (97.9 FM) for 15 years, and his noon-8 p.m. show Sunday is the city's top-rated show in that time slot.
So some of the artists whose music he has helped spread will gather Saturday at Continental Arena to honor Vega as "The King of Spanish Language Radio."
The 8 p.m. show, presented by WSKQ, features the Fania All Stars Forever, with guests including Oscar D'Leon, Ray Barretto, Richie Ray, Rey Ruiz and dozens more. Izzy Sanabria is the emcee.
"It's a real honor for me to have the Fania All Stars come here," says Vega. "I remember playing Fania's first record, back around 1964. Johnny Pacheco brought it to me on a single."
Vega's secret to durability in radio is simple, he says: "You just have to know good music. I play guitar, so I do."
For instance, he says, he grew up loving classic Cuban music, but he also hears good new music from Cuba today.
Born in Puerto Rico, he came to New York with his own son trio in 1959.
After WEVD, he worked at WBNX before he came to WSKQ, which means that over the years he has had a front-row seat for the explosive growth of Hispanic radio. From 1998 to 2003 alone, the U.S. got 276 new Hispanic stations, an increase of 79%.
"When I started, it was one or two hours here and there," he says. "Now we have many strong stations, and we will have more. It will keep growing."
Today as in the past, his own show blends new music with old, showing the links between past and present styles.
"Everyone wants to hear good new music," he says. "But whenever I play Machito or Tito Puente, the phones light up."
And what does Polito Vega love? "Personally, I like the big band sound," he says. "The oldies. That's what I play in my car."
Vega turned 66 yesterday, as it happens, and he notes how over the years he has worked with deejays from Paco and Felipe Luciano to Symphony Sid, Dick (Ricardo) Sugar, Roger Dawson and Joe Gaines.
"Many of them have retired and some have passed away," he says. "But I feel good. I'm still in good shape. I'd like to work five more years."